General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 15 Dec 2018/5 Snake
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Article suitable for older students

Professor Dorothy Hosler

Question for June 2018

When the ballgame is/was played at night, wouldn’t the burning rubber ball give off poisonous gases? Asked by Longshaw Primary School. Chosen and answered by Professor Dorothy Hosler.

Creation of an Ulama rubber ball using modern methods
Creation of an Ulama rubber ball using modern methods (Click on image to enlarge)

The ball wasn’t burning. They made the balls by combining latex (from the Castilla Elastica tree) with the juice of the Morning Glory vine. When the two are stirred, the sulphur in the morning glory vine juice combines with the liquid latex and after about 10 minutes solidifies into an elastic mass, which is then formed into a large ball. There isn’t any fire involved. The balls were traded from the tropical coastal areas to the Aztec capital in the highlands. This ritual game was performed throughout Mesoamerica, not only by the Aztec.

Pic 2: Modern ballplayers in Michoacán, Mexico, using sticks or bats.
Pic 2: Modern ballplayers in Michoacán, Mexico, using sticks or bats. (Click on image to enlarge)

Editor’s Note: Professor Hosler is describing here the age-old method of hand-making the rubber ball, going back to Olmec times.
There are some indications that a night-time version of the game is still played today (see pic 2) in one part of Mexico; ‘at the beginning of the game, the ball is set on fire, and is supposedly an allegory of the sun’. They ignite the ball with raw petroleum - common sense tells us that if it was poisonous in any way, they wouldn’t still play it! Professor Hosler suggests that in this version a different type of rubber is used, called Guayule latex.


Our thanks both to Professor Hosler and to Dr. María Teresa Uriarte (Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, UNAM) for their help with this question.

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: photo courtesy of Dr. Manuel Aguilar-Moreno
• Pic 2: photo taken in 1991 by Germán Herrera, courtesy of María Teresa Uriarte.

‘Ulama: The pre-Columbian ballgame survives today’

Learn more about Guayule rubber (Wikipedia)

Professor Dorothy Hosler has answered just this one question

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